Does acne-prone skin need moisturizer?

In general, everyone can benefit from using a high-quality facial moisturizer every day.Yeah, we mean everyone-- even people with very acne-prone skin. If you’re not using moisturizer yet, then this is your sign to start up! 

Why is it important to moisturize even if you’re dealing with breakouts? Because moisturizing your skin everyday reduces the chance of developing overly dry or oily skin, both of which can lead to acne breakouts. If you have acne-prone skin, whether it’s oily or dry, moisturizing should be an essential part of your skincare routine because it balances your skin’s natural oil production, which is the underlying issue with both oily and dry skin types. On top of that, moisturizing helps calm inflammation in the skin, keeps the skin looking young and plump and can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Now, we’ve all heard that oily skin and acne go hand in hand, but we never really hear about dry acne-prone skin. Oily acne-prone skin and dry acne-prone skin are caused by different factors and might need different treatments, but both skin types have the same issue: an imbalance of oil production. 

Let’s get into the difference between oily acne-prone skin and dry acne-prone skin:

Oily Acne-Prone Skin

Within the skin and underneath your pores is a sebaceous gland that opens into a hair follicle to secrete an oily, waxy material called sebum. Having the right amount of sebum helps keep your skin hydrated and healthy, but sometimes the sebaceous glands can produce too much oil, which creates oily skin. Oily skin is usually accompanied by increased pore size, a shiny complexion and a tendency toward blackheads, whiteheads and pimples. When you have oily skin, acne breakouts are much more likely because the sebum mixes with dead skin cells and gets stuck in your pores.

It’s important to note that it’s also possible to have oily skin that is not acne-prone as well. When pores are not plugged, oil flows freely from the inside of the follicle to lubricate your skin’s surface, giving you an oily but clear complexion.

oily acne prone skin

Here are some common causes of oily skin:

  1. Genetics: If one of your parents had oily skin, you’re much more likely to have overactive sebaceous glands as well.
  2. Age: Having oily skin is much more common during those younger, teenage years when hormones surge and trigger oil production. We produce less sebum as we age, because aging skin loses collagen and the sebaceous glands slow down. This is why some people go from having oily skin when they’re young to dry skin as they start to get older.
  3. Where you live: Living in a hot and humid environment leads to an increase in oil production from the sebaceous glands.
  4. Your skincare routine: Washing your face more than twice a day and/or stripping your skin with harsh acne treatment products, toners or rubbing alcohol can increase oil production by drying out the skin’s surface, causing your oil glands to overcompensate and produce more oil.
  5. Stress: When a person becomes stressed, the level of the body's stress hormone (cortisol) rises, causing an increase in oil production.
  6. Your Monthly Cycle: Your skin changes in response to hormones like estrogen and testosterone. For women, especially if you already have an oily skin-type, you may notice an increase in oil production before and during your period. Oiliness can also decrease as you produce less estrogen in perimenopause and menopause.

Here are some signs you might have an oily skin-type:

  1. Your face is shiny and usually appears greasy later on in the day
  2. You may have clogged pores, usually leading to blackheads and whiteheads
  3. You have enlarged pores throughout your T-zone (nose, chin and forehead)
  4. Your skin never feels tight or dry
  5. Your skin can become greasy within just a couple hours of cleansing
  6. Makeup usually doesn’t stay on throughout the day

oily acne prone skin

Why moisturizer is important for oily acne-prone skin types

If you fall into the oily skin-type category, this does not mean you get to skip the moisturizer! Many people mistake oily skin for hydrated skin, which is not the case. Skin hydration is the process where water is absorbed into the layers of the skin (epidermis and dermis) to maintain its plumpness, elasticity, and resiliency. Keeping your skin hydrated and full of moisture is extremely important for overall skin health and for keeping skin concerns, such as acne and early signs of aging, at bay. 

People with oily, acne-prone skin tend to use acne treatment products, such as topical retinoids like Retin-A (tretinoin) and Accutane (isotretinoin), topical antibacterials like benzoyl peroxide, alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid, and beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid. These acne treatment products are excellent for combatting acne, but they do come at a cost: the loss of moisture and the increase of dry, flaky skin. This is why it’s even more important to apply a hydrating moisturizer, because unless you replace the lost moisture caused by these products, your skin will remain dry and flaky and can also become vulnerable to cracks, breaks, tears, and infection. Even though it seems counterintuitive to add more moisture to your already oily face, using a hydrating moisturizer daily is the single best defense to avoiding these and other common side effects.

Dry acne-prone skin

In contrast to oily skin, a dry skin-type is characterized by fewer oil-producing glands on the face and body. Dry skin lacks oil because it produces less sebum than normal or oily skin, and the lack of sebum means the skin is without the lipids it needs to retain moisture and to build a strong skin barrier. 

Although dry skin is not a direct cause of acne, it can prompt the production of more sebum in your skin, and an excess of oil on your skin clogs the pores and creates acne. It then becomes a vicious cycle of dry skin and acne. Having dry skin can also cause an excess buildup of dead skin cells on the surface of your skin, which mixes together with sebum to clog your pores. Additionally, dry skin makes your pores more likely to break open, allowing acne causing bacteria to penetrate even deeper into the skin. 

Unfortunately for dry skin-types, many acne medications and treatments work by targeting oil glands and decreasing production of oil on the skin. Excessive dryness = overproduction of oil = acne! On top of that, when the skin is dry, it can be more irritated and make acne look and appear worse. All of this to say, that it’s absolutely crucial to find the right balance of hydration in your skincare routine. 

Having dry skin is an inherited skin condition that you might sustain your entire life, but there are some external factors that can lead to dry skin as well.

dry acne prone skin

Here are some common causes of dry skin:

  1. Genetics: Just like oily skin, having a dry skin-type can also be inherited from your mom and dad.
  2. Age: as you get older, we produce fewer natural oils and our cell turnover rate decreases, which can lead to dry, rough skin.
  3. Harsh winter weather: low temperatures and low humidity can dry out your skin. Plus, when you spend long periods of time indoors with the heat on, your skin is at risk of drying out.
  4. Surfactants: many cleansers, soaps and laundry detergents contain surfactants.  Surfactants are ingredients that allow a product to foam, thicken and emulsify. They can even preserve a product’s shelf life. Unfortunately, most cleansers, soaps and detergents contain harsh surfactants that strip your face of all its oil,  causing dry skin.
  5. Too much time in the water: hot showers, hot tubs, and spending long hours swimming can also cause dryness. The hotter the water is, the more oil and moisture is removed from your skin, and the longer you're in the shower or the hot tub, the more that this process is prolonged.
  6. Pre-existing skin conditions: eczema, keratosis pilaris, or psoriasis worsen dryness. Without a strong skin barrier, moisture can escape and bacteria, viruses and more can enter.

Here are some signs you might have a dry skin-type:

  1. Your skin feels tight after cleansing, showering or swimming
  2. You have dry patches and flaking (typically near the eyebrows and around the corners of the nose and mouth)
  3. For people with darker skin tones, skin may appear ashy or dull from dead skin buildup
  4. Your skin feels itchy
  5. Your skin has fine lines and cracks in it
  6. Your skin may have a redness to it
  7. In extreme cases, your skin might have deep cracks in it that may bleed

dry acne prone skin

The difference between dry skin and dehydrated skin

Now it gets a little tricky! Although dry skin and dehydrated skin can look pretty dang similar, they are caused by different factors. Basically, dry skin is due to a lack of oil-producing glands on the face and body, while dehydrated skin is a temporary condition caused by a lack of water. Even people with an oily skin type can get dehydrated skin sometimes. This can happen seasonally with dry weather and low humidity, or it can occur when you use acne treatment products that dry out your skin. The bottom line is that dryness refers to a skin type, whereas dehydration refers to a temporary skin condition. This means that dehydrated skin is always caused by external factors. 

Here are some common causes of dehydrated skin:

  1. Not drinking enough water: Dehydrated skin occurs because your body is losing more water than it’s taking in, which can be caused from not drinking enough water.
  2. Certain skincare and makeup products: common culprits include overly drying cleansers or harsh ingredients like denatured alcohol, mint, menthol, eucalyptus, and lemon. Also, most acne treatment products will dehydrate the skin. For makeup, avoid denatured alcohols typically found in quick-drying foundations and primers, any added fragrances, or anti-acne ingredients such as glycolic acid and salicylic acid.
  3. Environment & Humidity: skin is prone to dehydration when exposed to dry, windy conditions. Plus, central heating and air conditioning suck the moisture away from the skin even more. The more moisture in the air, the less water will evaporate from your skin.
  4. Caffeine Consumption: caffeine is a diuretic, which means it triggers you to produce more urine, therefore causing you to lose more water.

dehydrated skin

How moisturizer can help dry or dehydrated acne-prone skin

To combat overly dry or dehydrated skin, it’s absolutely crucial to add a hydrating moisturizer into your skincare routine. The right moisturizer can keep your skin balanced and prevent your skin from becoming painfully dry or irritated. Apply your moisturizer immediately after cleansing to seal in your skin’s moisture and reduce dryness. The only trick here is finding the right type of moisturizer for your dry, acne-prone skin. Many moisturizers are too thick, creamy and rich for acne-prone skin, or contain other ingredients that can clog your pores. So if you have acne-prone skin, it’s important to be especially careful when choosing a moisturizer.

Choosing the right type of moisturizer for all types of acne-prone skin

There are so many moisturizer options out there in the world that it can feel truly exhausting to choose between them. The main thing to remember is to look for a moisturizer that’s non-comedogenic. It’s also ideal to look for a gel-based moisturizer instead of a lotion-based moisturizer, because it’s lighter, less sticky, and more refreshing, while still helping to replenish your skin’s natural moisture balance. 

Here are some ingredients in moisturizers to steer clear of:

  1. Coconut oil and Shea Butter: these are comedogenic ingredients that clog pores and form blackheads
  2. Cocoa butter: extremely comedogenic and can trap bacteria in the pores and lead to further breakouts.
  3. Petroleum: although it does help reduce water loss from a person’s skin, it can also clog pores for acne-prone skin types.
  4. Petrolatum: the oil in moisturizers is usually petrolatum, which can have a greasy, heavy feeling on the skin and is typically not recommended for oily skin types.
  5. Fragrance: artificial fragrances are often a trigger for allergies, sensitivities and acne. Acne-prone and sensitive skin types should steer clear from words like “parfum” and “linalool” and actively look for products that are labeled “fragrance-free.”

benefits of moisturizer

Here are some good quality Ingredients to look for in a moisturizer:

The best moisturizers for acne-prone skin types should contain a mix of gentle, yet effective acne-fighting ingredients to instill hydration without leaving you feeling too oily or too dry. Additionally, the best moisturizers for acne-prone skin contain lightweight, hydrating ingredients that won’t clog the pores.

  1. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs): The best moisturizers for acne-prone skin contain a very low percentage of AHAs like glycolic acid, lactic acid, or mandelic acid. Including a small amount of these ingredients helps to treat acne while simultaneously hydrating. Furthermore, including AHAs lowers the pH of the product, helping to protect the skin’s protective barrier. Note: this is not ideal for very dry, acne-prone skin types.
  2. Glycerin & Hyaluronic acid: these ingredients are great for increasing the water content and the hydration of the skin.
  3. Panthenol: (aka Pro-vitamin B5) helps to restore the skin’s protective barrier and helps the skin to retain moisture.
  4. Squalane: Despite it being an oil, squalane is lightweight and noncomedogenic so it won’t clog your pores. It also has anti-inflammatory and properties that can reduce redness and swelling.

Final thoughts on moisturizer

Although everyone can benefit from consistently using a moisturizer every single day, acne-prone skin especially needs to stay hydrated. Not only does it balance your skin’s natural oil production, but it calms inflammation in the skin, keeps the skin looking young and plump, and enables you to continue using acne-treatment properties without overly drying out your skin. 

Whether you have oily acne-prone skin, dry acne-prone skin, or dehydrated skin, supplying your skin with a hydrating moisturizer is key to overall skin health. Steer clear of moisturizers that contain pore-clogging ingredients and have a lotion-like consistency. Instead, reach for a gel-based, oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizer that contains hydrating, acne-fighting properties.

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